From Movie Sets to Operating Rooms, Chamberlain Group Turns Special Effects Biz into Healthcare Winner

4/13/09

Before computer animation took hold of the movie industry, spaceships, exploding cities, dislodged body parts, and other scene-stealing special effects were crafted by highly skilled model makers. But after decades spent in entertainment, Lisa and Eric Chamberlain have taken their skills in the entertainment and special effects businesses and applied them to provide realistic anatomical models of human organs and tissues for the medical market.

In fact, the wife-and-husband team are running a growing western Massachusetts company, The Chamberlain Group, which counts among its customers medical devices powerhouses Boston Scientific (NYSE:BSX) and Medtronic (NYSE:MDT) as well as respected teaching hospitals like Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, MA, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The firm, which serves the medical market exclusively, deftly blends traditional model-making techniques with advances in imaging and computer-graphics technology to make models for surgical training and product demonstrations.

Take the company’s sinus trainer, which consists of a head and neck model with replaceable sinuses. Entellus Medical, a Maple Grove, MN, medical devices firm, began using the models last summer to train surgeons how to use its catheter-based surgical tool for treating chronic sinusitis.

Sinus model photo“It’s extremely real in terms of the sinus anatomy,” says Dick Cassidy, vice president of sales at Entellus. Training with the surgical models takes about an hour in the surgeon’s office—much cheaper and more convenient than flying surgeons from around the country to be trained on the device in a central lab with real human cadavers, he notes.

How is it done? The Chamberlain Group, which began making surgical models in the late 1990s, has perfected a technique that melds art and science, Lisa Chamberlain, vice president of the company, explains. Computed tomography (CT) scans of living subjects provide images of human organs with precise dimensions. The company then uses haptics technology—which enables digital models to be made with a touch-sensitive controller—to craft 3-D models of the organs. Those digital models are made into 3-D molds with special printing machines.

Here’s where the artistic part comes in. The firm uses proprietary combinations of silicon and polymers to create lifelike human tissues. By using varying ratios of silicon and polymer, the firm’s artists can control the elasticity, firmness, and other characteristics of the faux human tissues.

The company’s wares range from simple model replacement veins to complex organs like its impressive beating heart (see the lifelike model beating away in this video clip). The beating heart, which has been sold to customers such as Medtronic, has fake muscle tissue that expands when air pressure from an electric-powered pump is applied to an expandable mesh material inside of the tissue. The firm has even patented the beating heart model, Lisa Chamberlain says.

The Chamberlains’ transition from special effects to surgical models couldn’t have been scripted. The couple, who met while working for New York-based special effects company R/GA in the early 1980s, had previously worked on action movies such as Event Horizon and The Matrix. (Eric Chamberlain, a former head of physical effects at R/GA, led the design and construction of an array of some 120 cameras used to film action scenes in The Matrix.) Lisa Chamberlain, who was trained at Yale School of Drama, worked on the production side of the business.

But as the special effects business shifted to computer-animated effects, the Chamberlains sought new markets for their services, company spokesman Edward Agne told me. Lisa Chamberlain says that the she and her husband decided to move full on into the medical market after attending a Society of Thoracic Surgeons meeting in 2000, where they saw that many medical devices firms there were using anatomical models they had made for another distributor.

“We thought, maybe there’s something here,” Chamberlain says.

The company, founded in 1999, now employs about 20 people at its facility in Great Barrington, where it designs, builds, and ships surgical and anatomical simulacra to customers in 40 countries worldwide. Not a bad model to follow.

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